Monday, October 26, 2009

Book preview: The Barisan's downfall

This is the fifth and final book preview of Singapore: A Biography, which was launched in Singapore last week. The first four previews were 'Farquhar and Raffles fall out', 'The education of Singapore girls', 'Captain Mohan Singh's dark night of the soul' and 'Staging merdeka'.

This preview takes place amidst the politically heady years of the early 1960s. In 1961, members of the People's Action Party (PAP) left to form a new leftist political party, the Barisan Sosialis. The key issue that had prompted their split was the manner in which the Singapore government was then negotiating with Kuala Lumpur to join a new Federation of Malaysia. In September 1962, the people of Singapore voted in favour of the government's Merger proposal in the country's only referendum (so far). In February the following year, key members of the Barisan were detained under the Internal Security Act following Operation Coldstore.

The Barisan's downfall
Meanwhile, in late November 1962, Lee [Kuan Yew] began what became a one-man, 11-month election campaign, the likes of which Singaporeans had never before seen. David Marshall might have held ‘meet the people’ sessions as at his Chief Minister’s office in Empress Place, but no elected leader had ever taken to the road to visit every one of the island’s 51 constituencies (Lee went first to those that had registered the most blank votes in the referendum) nor pushed themselves so far out of their own comfort zone to talk to the people in their own languages. As the Prime Minister toured Singapore, giving speeches in English, Mandarin, Malay and sometimes stumbling Hokkien (occasionally with a few words of Tamil greeting thrown in) he appeared to his supporters a kind of Singapore ‘everyman’. Invariably, his message was simple and direct:
The government’s got to do the job. Homes must be built, clinics must be built, roads must be made, money must be saved – the people must be taken care of.

You’ll get more: better roads, better drains, better schools, and better jobs for your children. But most important of all … whatever our faults – and I don’t say we’ve got no faults – we have never put our fingers in the kitty and put a few gold coins in the pocket.
Looking back, Lee described these 11 months of constituency visits as ‘the most hectic’ in his life. Sometimes he was heckled, on occasions he was shoved, many times he was garlanded (especially when he honoured various temples with his presence); always, he made an impression. As Judy Bloodworth, a sound recordist with the TV crew that followed Lee on his visits, remembered:
[T]he people would cheer and boo and in the middle of all the noise he would be elated, push his way down among them, laugh at the lion dancers around him, careless of the roaring fireworks, never showing fear – he was burned in the face once but took no notice. We really felt like a team, like an army unit; we felt proud of him. You couldn’t help it.
Indeed, television, just as radio had been, proved fundamental to Lee’s success. He later recalled in a speech: ‘People watched on TV the spontaneous response of the crowds to the speeches made. The visits gathered steam;’ and in his memoirs he wrote, ‘I became a kind of political pop star!’ An unscripted, unrehearsed drama of national proportions was taking place and coming soon, to a community centre near you, was its on-screen idol – live in the flesh!

Of course, Lee’s televised encounters were not entirely spontaneous. Concerned with how fierce his rabble-rousing merdeka persona came across on screen, he sought advice from the famous BBC interviewer Hugh Burnett to help him appear more calm, collected and natural. By contrast, television transformed the Barisan’s speakers – still accustomed to projecting themselves from the podium out into the crowd – into demented wild men. When the camera zoomed in for close ups, it picked out their every exaggerated mannerism and contorted facial expression (much as it does today when inexperienced actors bring their theatrical techniques direct from the stage to the screen).

And not long after, those remaining Barisan leaders who had not been detained appeared to live up to their on-screen image. On 22 April 1963, the party marched on City Hall to protest their comrades’ detentions. A confrontation with the police ensued, following which 12 more Barisan leaders were arrested. Their court case began in early August and ended on the 29th, just a few days before Lee announced snap elections. Remembered Dr Lee Siew Choh (who was one of those arrested): ‘And, almost immediately … General Election! You see, we were completely occupied with the trial’.

The Plebian, the Barisan’s newsletter, called these elections ‘the most unfair and undemocratic in the history of Singapore’. The party again had trouble obtaining police permits for its rallies; on nomination day 17 potential Barisan candidates were held for questioning by Special Branch until it was too late for them to file their nomination papers (which then, as now, they had to do in person); three days earlier, three of the largest unions loyal to the Barisan had their bank accounts frozen to prevent their funds being used for political purposes. Finally, on the eve of the vote, Goh [Keng Swee] played on electoral anxieties once more by claiming that a Barisan victory would mean Malaysian troops in Singapore the following day.

However both sides played equally hard, such were the high stakes on offer. Earlier, while canvassing in Hong Lim, Lee Kuan Yew found himself drowned out by music blaring from the offices of a Barisan-loyal trade union located above him. Later, Toh Chin Chye and his colleagues were barracked by opponents who reportedly yelled: ‘Don’t let them get away. You! The day of your death has arrived!’ In areas where Barisan support was strong, PAP canvassers were reportedly insulted, threatened and sometimes physically assaulted.

Importantly, the imprisonment of the Barisan’s ‘first team’ leadership was not the inevitable death knell for the party as it has sometimes been portrayed. As photographs of the Barisan's election campaign reveal, massive portraits of Lim Chin Siong adorned practically every party event. Lim was a hero, a martyr, his unjust incarceration the party’s cause célèbre. Behind bars, he remained a major threat to the PAP’s hold on power.

In the lead-up to what was without doubt the most important election in Singapore’s history thus far, the outcome seemed too close to call. The Australian High Commission told Canberra that the Barisan privately expected to win 35 seats, while the PAP believed it would win 30; British officials in Singapore began to seriously contemplate how to deal with a new Barisan government. However, on 21 September 1963, the PAP won a resounding 37 seats and the Barisan just 13 (the final seat in the Assembly went to the belligerent candidate for Hong Lim, Ong Eng Guan). For the PAP the result was a vindication for its social revolution – the jobs, hospitals, schools and utilities it brought to Singapore – as well its successful negotiation of Merger.

For the Barisan the result was shattering.

© Mark Ravinder Frost & Yu-Mei Balasingamchow 2009. Singapore: A Biography was published in October 2009 by National Museum of Singapore & Editions Didier Millet.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

10 quick questions: Yu-Mei asks, Mark answers

1. Who was your favourite author when you were growing up, and why?

I am most definitely still growing up, and during this process there have been many favourites. When I was about 16 I discovered the Russian 'greats' - Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Turgenev and Chekhov. The drama of their sometimes manic narratives definitely left a deep impression.

As I grew up a bit more, I began to enjoy a cooler, more controlled prose style. In my late 20s I got hooked on Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. Now, in my late 30s, I like reading works that provide some meditative calm (it must be the contrast with the bustle of family life and work). I read far more popular non-fiction than I used to (in addition to what I have to read as an academic), and I am even considering starting on Proust.

Nonetheless, the narrative intensity of the Russian 'greats' probably still influences what I write the most, even when it comes to popular history. Nabokov might have described Dostoevsky as an outrageous 'hack'(and to some extent he was) but he remains a genius 'hack' all the same.

2. What is the most common assumption people make about historians that really annoys you?

It's an assumption that is so annoying because it can be true - that historians are dusty and boring. The problem is we train ourselves to be walking repositories of the past, which no matter how you try to project yourself is not exactly sexy. Even within academia, I think history has an image problem. Compare us with other experts in the humanities and social sciences with their greater penchant for theory and we appear like party-poopers who have turned up at the fancy dress ball in plain clothes. (Indeed, many of us secretly hold that this is our role in life - to puncture grand social and economic theories through our deeper acquaintance with historical detail).

Things are, of course, changing. Many historians have embraced theory. At the same time, narrative history is now back with a bang (and selling fast) while big-name historians are all over the box.

All the same, I will never forget the first time I met my (now) wife in Singapore. It was at a family dinner where her parents were so interested in the fact that I was interested in Singapore history that they didn't give me a chance to talk about anything else. Wife-to-be thought I was boring and dusty, and I had to spend a lot of effort convincing her that I wasn't.

3. Of all the personalities in Singapore: A Biography, who would you invite to dinner and why?

Hardly original, but for a good old gossip and bitch over several bottles of wine (and provided he was not in a bad mood) it would have to be David Marshall.

4. What would you talk about?

Well, first up, did he enjoy jazz? When we did the Companion Guide episode in the National Museum, I lobbied to have his 'Under the Apple Tree' speech mixed over Dave Brubeck's 'Take Five'. I still wonder if he would have enjoyed this or hated it. (Perhaps he'd have preferred a more momentous soundtrack like Beethoven or Wagner.)

I'd also ask him about the best post-war bars in Singapore - especially, what he recalled of the Liberty Cabaret on South Bridge Road. The other important stuff about politics is all in his oral history interview at the National Archives so there would be no need to go back over it.

5. If someone made a film about 1950s Singapore politics, which actors would you like to see cast as David Marshall and Lee Kuan Yew?

(Ha, is this revenge for my WWF historical smackdown question?)

I think with modern SFX, Lee could be played by a digitally slimmed-down and youthful looking combination of two actors: Glen Goei and Sir Anthony Hopkins. After Nixon, Hopkins could play any major leader (given the right prosthetics) and since both actors have worked together they could probably each "inhabit one another's space" and "really get inside each other" to create Lee on the big screen. Hopkins could give Goei a few Hannibal Lecter tips on ruthlessness and Goei could teach Hopkins how to be ... more Chinese?

Marshall would have to be played by Singapore-based Malaysian actor and playwright Huzir Sulaiman - who has written a play about Marshall and must be just waiting for the call.

6. Which two personalities from different time periods in Singapore: A Biography could have been best mates, and why?

Best mates for how long? Like anywhere else, Singapore's political history is so fraught with big egos and break-ups. Remember Raffles and Farquhar, Lee Kuan Yew and Lim Chin Siong?

Okay, then, probably Dr Goh Keng Swee (self-governing Singapore's first Finance Minister) and Dr John Crawfurd (Singapore's second British Resident). They'd be able to spend hours together discussing domestic growth figures, moaning about the expensive and unrealistic idealism of some of their associates, and comparing who could go longer without wasting money by washing his underpants.

7. One of our reviewers said we seemed to have a lot of fun writing this book. What was you favourite part?

It was also the most difficult: weaving the various sources and individual life-stories into a flowing narrative through effective transitions.

When these transitions worked, it was very satisfying. I especially enjoyed the Chettiar/Little India section that comes just before the outbreak of World War II (Yu-Mei's original idea to place it here) and the filmic indulgences (cut tos, freeze-frames, rewinds etc.) that are employed at crucial moments in the 1950s Merdeka chapters. These were meant to evoke the new mass media that dominated this period (and I know that you at least, illustrious co-author, really liked them).

For more on these, go buy the book.

8. If you hadn't elected to read history when you were an undergraduate, what do you think you would be doing now?

Very simple - English Lit. My family is like an English Lit. mafia.

I was tossing up between English and History, and it was simply the encouraging words of my history teacher (the revered Charles Malyon, regarded by many - me included - as during his career the best history teacher in the UK) that sealed it for me. At the time, my parents thought English Lit. as a subject was going down the plughole anyway, what with the death of the author.

I'd like to say that an alternative life-choice would have meant I'd now be writing great novels and making great films. But, in reality, I'd probably still be sitting here in Hong Kong University, only just a few offices down the corridor, dreaming of the big break-out from the English Department.

9. After living in Singapore for over six years and writing Singapore: A Biography, what is the one thing about Singapore that you still can't get enough of?

Strangely enough, it's not the food. I have a sense Singaporeans are getting a bit short-changed these days when it comes to their culinary delights. A quick trip to Penang might make more people realise something is amiss.

No, for me the answer to that question (sentimental as it may sound) is definitely the people. Beyond the government, the 'system' and the cleanliness, Singapore is defined for me by an extraordinarily diverse range of wonderful people, past and present. This was the main motivation for writing a 'biography' of the island.

And btw, though there are all these courtesy campaigns and repeated self-criticisms in the press about the lack of graciousness in Singapore society, my own experience is that Singapore is a far less aggressive and unfriendly place than many others I have lived in.

10. Please explain your name?

It's partly thanks to Google again.

Mark Frost is a well-known historian, novelist and screenwriter, especially in the US, who is perhaps best known for collaborating with filmmaker David Lynch.

One day, while working on the National Museum project, a curator called me up to congratulate me on my new novel The Six Messiahs (though on the phone I heard him say 'The Sex Messiah' - which took a while to work out and was all rather embarrassing). So I started adding my Indian name Ravinder to become Mark R. Frost or, in the case of our book, Mark Ravinder Frost (so Yu-Mei does not feel so alone with her own epic name).

My mother is from South India (my father from South London) and she gave me the Tamil name Ravinder after her favourite Indian poet, the Bengali Rabindranath Tagore.

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